Article 21: Guardian of Right to Life and Personal Liberty Under Indian Constitution

Article 21: Right to Life and Personal Liberty

Article 21 of the Indian Constitution guarantees the fundamental right to life and personal liberty to all persons. It states that “No person shall be deprived of his life or personal liberty except according to procedure established by law” [1]. This right is available not just to citizens but to all persons within the territory of India [2]. Over the years, the scope of Article 21 has been considerably expanded through judicial interpretation. From mere existence, the Right to Life under Article 21 now comprehends within its ambit the right to live with dignity and encompasses a variety of rights essential for meaningful existence [3]. Similarly, the expression ‘personal liberty’ has acquired a wide interpretation covering varied aspects of individual freedom [4]. Article 21 is no longer confined to protection against executive action but has been extended even against hostile legislation [5]. This paper analyzes the evolutionary journey of Article 21 and its emergence as the guardian of precious fundamental rights.

Historical Background of Article 21

India became an independent democratic republic on 26th January 1950 after centuries of colonial rule. The framers of the Constitution wanted to secure socio-economic justice and dignified life to common masses. Fundamental rights were incorporated in Part III to arrest State encroachment on individual liberties. Right to life and personal liberty received specific mention in Article 21 owing to its supreme importance. The language of Article 21 is similar to the due process clause of the American Constitution [6] and Article 31 of the Irish Constitution [7]. However, ‘due process’ was replaced with ‘procedure established by law’ during drafting to prevent judicial review of laws violating Article 21 [8]. In A.K. Gopalan v. State of Madras [9], the Supreme Court gave a narrow interpretation to Article 21 limiting personal liberty to merely freedom from physical restraint. This was overturned in Maneka Gandhi v. Union of India [10], where the Court ruled that procedure under Article 21 must be fair, just and reasonable. Post-Maneka Gandhi, Article 21 has been given an expansive interpretation enhancing human rights and dignity.

Right to Live with Human Dignity under Article 21

In Francis Mullin v. UT of Delhi [11], the Supreme Court ruled that Right to Life includes right to live with human dignity, having bare necessities like nutrition, clothing, shelter, facilities for reading, writing, expressing oneself and interacting with fellow humans. Any act debasing dignity constitutes deprivation of Article 21 rights. In Bandhua Mukti Morcha v. UOI [12], the Court held that Right to Live with dignity encompassed freedom from exploitation. Non-implementation of labor laws and non-payment of minimum wages violated workers’ right to live with dignity under Article 21 [13]. Right to shelter and housing is also part of human dignity [14].

Right to Livelihood

Right to livelihood emerged from judicial interpretation of Right to Life under Article 21. In Olga Tellis v. Bombay Municipal Corporation [15], eviction of pavement dwellers was held unconstitutional since it deprived them of livelihood without procedure established by law. In D.K. Yadav v. JMA Industries [16], the Court ruled that lay-off allowing employer to refuse work under the Industrial Disputes Act violated workers’ livelihood affecting their quality of life and hence, contravened Article 21. Right to livelihood includes several ancillary rights like right to shelter [17], right to food [18], right to water [19], right to education [20], right to health [21] etc. which are integral to dignified living.

Right to Free Legal Aid

In M.H. Hoskot v. State of Maharashtra [22], the Supreme Court recognised right to free legal aid as implicit in Article 21 and part of reasonable, fair and just procedure. Lack of legal aid to poor or ignorant persons would render Article 21 ineffective. Hence, legal aid at State’s expense was mandatory under Article 39A read with Articles 14 and 21 in case of deprived accused persons.

Right to Free and Compulsory Education under Article 21

Though originally placed under Directive Principles [23], Right to Education up to age 14 years became a fundamental right under Article 21A through the 86th Constitutional Amendment in 2002. It operationalised the State’s obligation under Article 21 to provide educational facilities and opportunities as an integral component of dignified life and personality development. Education is quintessential for growth of human capital and meaningful exercise of citizenship.

Right to Speedy Trial under Article 21

Inordinate delay in criminal trial infringes personal liberty under Article 21. In Hussainara Khatoon v. Bihar [24], the Court directed release of undertrial prisoners detained beyond period of punishment prescribed for offence charged with since detention beyond that period was unjustified, unfair and unreasonable. Right to speedy trial secures ends of justice, prevents undue hardship and crucially upholds liberty. Guidelines for speedy disposal of criminal cases were outlined in Abdul Rehman Antulay v. R.S. Nayak [25]. Repeated adjournments and frivolous litigation tactics by the State violate accused’s right to speedy trial [26].

Right to Pollution-free Environment

In Subhash Kumar v. State of Bihar [27], the Supreme Court recognised Right to pollution-free environment under the wide scope of Right to Life in Article 21. It held Right to Life included right to sustainable environment and ecology free from air pollution, water pollution, noise pollution and other hazards injurious to health. The Polluter Pays principle was evolved as a condition for carrying on hazardous industries and operating controls and technologies to combat pollution [28]. In M.C. Mehta v. Kamal Nath [29], the Court reiterated that Right to Life comprised right to protect and preserve environment including lakes, forests, rivers and wildlife.

Right to Privacy

Right to privacy i.e. right to be left alone is a concomitant of personal liberty under Article 21. Telephone-tapping [30] and narco-analysis tests [31] against consent were held to be unconstitutional invasions of privacy. Privacy includes autonomy to make intimate decisions regarding marriage [32], procreation [33], contraception [34] etc. without State interference. In the landmark Puttaswamy judgment [35], the Supreme Court unanimously declared Right to Privacy as intrinsic to Right to Life and personal liberty under Article 21. It is an essential facet of human dignity and agency. However, no right is absolute and reasonable restrictions are permissible.

Rights of Prisoners

Prisoners retain their fundamental rights save those lost owing to detention [36]. Solitary confinement and other forms of custodial torture violate prisoner’s Right to Life under Article 21 [37]. Right to health and medical care extends to inmates as well [38]. The State has a duty to ensure prisoners are treated humanely and provided safe, hygienic living conditions in jails. Disciplinary action must follow principles of natural justice and fairness [39]. Capital punishment per se does not violate Article 21 [40]. However, execution of death sentence must satisfy due process and be subject to judicial review [41].

Right against Custodial Violence

Custodial torture and violence abridges both life and personal liberty without sanction of law. It reduces humans to their animal existence bereft of dignity. In Sheela Barse v. State of Maharashtra [42], the Court issued directives for welfare and safety of women prisoners. In D.K. Basu v. State of West Bengal [43], guidelines were framed for arrest, detention and interrogation to curb custodial deaths and abuse of police power. Award of compensation for custodial torture has also received judicial sanction as a mode of redress under public law jurisdiction [44].


From its limited original scope, Article 21 has blossomed into the magna carta of human rights and dignity through remarkable judicial activism. Instead of verbatim application, it has witnessed progressive interpretation guided by socio-economic realities. The Indian Supreme Court has creatively capitalized on the phrase ‘right to life’ to recognize many un-enumerated liberties and entitlements essential for meaningful existence in current times. Article 21 symbolizes the living Constitution open to re-interpretation with changing circumstances. By continually expanding frontiers of Article 21 through purposive construction, the Court has emerged as custodian of fundamental rights and dispenser of social justice in India. Dynamic interpretation has transformed Article 21 into a guarantor of human rights and development inline with constitutional goals. However, expansive construction also raises concerns about judicial overreach [45]. The delicate balance between judicial activism and restraint needs continual calibration for robust realization of constitutional vision and values.


[1] INDIA CONST. art. 21.

[2] Chairman, Railway Board v. Chandrima Das, (2000) 2 SCC 465 (India).

[3] P. Rathinam v. Union of India, (1994) 3 SCC 394 (India).

[4] Maneka Gandhi v. Union of India, (1978) 1 SCC 248 (India).

[5] Mithu v. State of Punjab, (1983) 2 SCC 277 (India).

[6] U.S. CONST. amend. XIV, § 1.

[7] Art. 40(4), Constitution of Ireland 1937.

[8] A.K. Gopalan v. State of Madras, AIR 1950 SC 27 (India).

[9] Id.

[10] (1978) 1 SCC 248 (India).

[11] (1981) 1 SCC 608 (India).

[12] (1984) 3 SCC 161 (India).

[13] Peoples Union for Democratic Rights v. Union of India, (1982) 3 SCC 235 (India).

[14] Chameli Singh v. State of U.P., (1996) 2 SCC 549 (India).

[15] (1985) 3 SCC 545 (India).

[16] (1993) 3 SCC 260 (India).

[17] Olga Tellis v. Bombay Municipal Corporation, (1985) 3 SCC 545 (India).

[18] PUCL v. Union of India, (2001) 5 SCC 294 (India).

[19] Subhash Kumar v. State of Bihar, (1991) 1 SCC 598.

[20] Mohini Jain v. State of Karnataka, (1992) 3 SCC 666 (India).

[21] Paschim Banga Khet Mazdoor Samity v. State of W.B., (1996) 4 SCC 37 (India).

[22] (1978) 1 SCC 598 (India).

[23] INDIA CONST. art. 41.

[24] (1979) 1 SCC 27 (India).

[25] (1992) 1 SCC 225 (India).

[26] Anil Rai v. State of Bihar, (2001) 7 SCC 318 (India).

[27] (1991) 1 SCC 598 (India).

[28] Vellore Citizens Welfare Forum v. Union of India, (1996) 5 SCC 647 (India).

[29] (1997) 1 SCC 388 (India).

[30] R.M. Malkani v. State of Maharashtra, (1973) 1 SCC 471 (India).

[31] Selvi v. State of Karnataka, (2010) 7 SCC 263 (India).

[32] Lata Singh v. State of U.P., (2006) 5 SCC 475 (India).

[33] Suchitra Srivastava v. Chandigarh Admn., (2009) 9 SCC 1 (India).

[34] Devika Biswas v. Union of India, (2016) 10 SCC 726 (India).

[35] K.S. Puttaswamy v. Union of India, (2017) 10 SCC 1 (India).

[36] Sunil Batra v. Delhi Admn., (1978) 4 SCC 494 (India).

[37] Id.

[38] Parmanand Katara v. Union of India, (1989) 4 SCC 286 (India).

[39] Francis Coralie Mullin v. UT of Delhi, (1981) 1 SCC 608 (India).

[40] Bachan Singh v. State of Punjab, (1980) 2 SCC 684 (India).

[41] Shatrughan Chauhan v. Union of India, (2014) 3 SCC 1 (India).

[42] (1983) 2 SCC 96 (India).

[43] (1997) 1 SCC 416 (India).

[44] Rudul Sah v. State of Bihar, (1983) 4 SCC 141 (India).

[45] A.L. SOMAIAH, Dynamics of Judicial Activism, THE INDIAN JOURNAL OF POLITICAL SCIENCE 566–585 (2006).